BOULDER, Colo. — Law enforcement officers deal with tragedy on a day-to-day basis — from domestic violence situations to fatal car crashes and shootings. The challenges come with the job, and a potential to leave a harmful and lasting impact on officers.
“I think sometimes (emergency responders) get a rap for not feeling or having emotions for the stuff they go through,” said Dr. Jaime Brower. “The truth of it is, you can’t be immersed in people’s trauma, turmoil and sadness and walk through it thinking it won’t have an impact on you. That would be equivalent of thinking you can walk through water without getting wet.”
Thanks to a $75,000 grant, Brower, a clinical psychologist, who owns Brower Psychological Police and Public Safety Services, has been working with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office for the last two months to provide in-house mental health services to officers.
Heidi Prentup, a former division chief for the sheriff’s support services, applied for the Department of Local Affairs Peace Officer’s Mental Health Grant before her retirement earlier this year. Throughout her 30-year-tenure with the sheriff’s office, Prentup championed mental health support and tackle its surrounding stigma.
Brower is no stranger to the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office and has worked with its officers for the last 17 years, providing services from her office in Denver. Brower said she looks forward to being able to work more closely with the agency and provide them 20 hours a week of individual sessions and training.
Sheriff Joe Pellesaid while mental health services have long been available to officers, they had to drive to Brower’s office in Denver for counseling. While officers can ask for support, the sheriff’s office mandates that staff who experiences a critical incident, such as an officer-involved shooting, go through an after-action debriefing and at least two counseling sessions. With Brower’s professionals working closely with officers, Pelle believes it will offer them potentially life-saving support.
“Nationally, for every police officer that loses their life in the line of duty, three to four take their own life,” Pelle said.
The statistic is one that is reflected in Boulder County, too. Pelle said he can recall four current or former Boulder County Sheriff’s Officers who died by suicide in the last 15 years.
Across the U.S., police have a more than 54% greater risk of committing suicide, compared to American workers in general, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit police research and policy organization. Pelle believes the risk is higher because of the day-to-day challenges officers face.
“Peace officers and cops deal with the ugly side of the human condition day in and day out,” Pelle said. “They are in stressful conditions. They are being judged by others for split second decisions. They are dealing with too much too often and too gruesome things that people aren’t supposed to see. It’s a stressful job, with an ugly downside. Naturally when you do that day after day, you need a little help.”
The grant, which lasts for three years, is renewable. Pelle said he hopes to keep the in-house services “going for a long time.”
To be proactive in addressing some of the trauma officers face in their job, they can volunteer to be part of a peer support team. They receive 40 hours of training so that they can aid their fellow teammates when they experience daily stress or a critical incident. In addition to providing counseling sessions, Brower plans to work with the peer support team. She also hopes to offer training on moral and resiliency to boost deputies’ ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. There are roughly a dozen officers involved in the sheriff’s peer support team.
“A lot of our law enforcement, firefighters and EMS, they would prefer oftentimes to work with their own peers,” Brower said. “To go to a peer with specialized training, really magnifies the amount of support they can receive.”
Having access to mental health services can have a huge impact on an officer’s overall wellness and ability to do their job. When people care for themselves, Brower said they not only have the tools to focus on the job in front of them, they also can live a life unburdened by mental illness.
“My hopes would be that we can lay groundwork for the future to enhance some of the programs already present so that they can be sustainable,” Brower said. “We want to impact and help as many of our helpers as we can.”